What are we talking about here?

As my week came to a close, I decided to indulge myself with a take-home dinner from TGI Fridays (stronanoff) and a couple of beers while I waited. I looked at severa articles in FL Annals.

Not to be too annal about it…….. but why is it some people can say things like, “In 1982 I wrote ’…… the fl profession as a whole has been remarkably unsuccessful at achieving the communicative goals that we and our student clients have established. Even so, our conspicuous lack of success is not for want of trying.” Ray Clifford, who quoted himself from 26 years ago, is a venerable figure in fl teaching. At ACTFL in November he displayed a hilarious chart showing how technological innovations promised time after time to revolutionize teaching but soon settled into a more practical level of use; everything from the teaching machine to MP3 Players and the beloved Power Point Presentation (all bow in glorious obeisance). What Ray seemed to be saying is that if the content of the Power Point is the same old crap, Power Point isn’t going to rescue us from our own “conspicuous lack of success.”

Yet if I question the efficacy of the focus on conjugation in 16 tenses, I am quickly reminded that years of experience in turning out (churning out?) dozens of students (out of thousands) who go on to learn L2 weighs far more than my pesky questions.

Recently on two of the fl listservs I am on I’ve been a little disturbed by what appear to be ad hominem arguments, as if it is beside the point to take on someone’s ideas, we have to question their sincerity, their grammar, their knowledge of an L2, their credentials, and so on. I wish everyone who agreed with me were nice, but they aren’t always. Folks who disagree with me can be very…. disagreeable, throwing around terms like “irresponsible” and “stupid” to describe what I do or don’t do.

So it was with some trepidation that I turned to the FL Annals responses to an article published, one by the Almighty Krashen and the other by the author of the article (Grimm). Believe you me, I do not have the patience or the knowledge to note some discrepancy in “.05 level of significance” statistical stuff; that’s what Krashen does. He made a reasonable response to Grimm’s article. Grimm then replied to Krashen in an equally reasonable way.

What struck me about both of these, I mean the remarks by Clifford and the exchange between Krashen and Grimm, was the way we see rehashed over and over the same arguments. Grimm’s statements regarding learning through focus on form sound to me like what I see on Listservs all the time: a complete misunderstanding of what Krashen is talking about.

Here’s what I mean. The basic misunderstanding seems to be that if you teach, for instance, the dative case used with an indirect object and the student is able to select the dative or use the dative or spot the dative in this use and identify it as such, then the student “knows” the dative case and one of its uses.

Nonsense. Krashen has spent 30 years trying to explain to people that the only language that matters is that which is acquired, to use his terminology. As he asserts in his response, you can argue with him but you cannot ignore him.

What I see going on on these Listservs (I’m on 6 of them, Lord help me) is people ignoring the abysmal failure of fl classes in highs schools and colleges to produce students with ANY level of proficiency. If a kid comes out of first year Spanish and looks at you bewildered when you say Ola, there is a problem. What many teachers on the Listservs do is either deny that their students and, by extension, most students emerge from a year of study at that pitiful level or, admitting that that is often the case, insist that the answer is more of the same, i.e. focus on form.

Let us understand that there IS NO research or practice which definitively PROVES that ANYTHING works: tprs, grammar/translation, the Rassias method, Pimsleur, immersion, rule application, memorization, dozens of mnemonics aka pneumonics (heavy breathing), electroshock, testing, oh, wait a minute. I think that most of us would agree that if someone were to be plunked down in the middle of Bolivia with no way out and an urgent necessity to find a way to survive and make a life there, they probably would wind up learning Spanish. Let’s not call that immersion; let’s call it learning in the natural environment.

A quick caveat: even this sure-fire method is questioned b/c learners in the natural environment sometimes decline to master the hortatory subjunctive of deponent verbs of the 3rd conjugation and therefore are deemed to have failed in the acquisition process. It’s an old trick: find the most obscure measure of “success” imaginable, apply it with a air of great haughtiness, and declare the object totally inept.

It doesn’t work though b/c 2nd language learners function well in the society as is proved by numerous colleagues here in the U.S. whose English is, hmmmm, how to be nice… so bad you have to strain to understand them. How’s that? They hold advanced degrees and professional jobs as fl teachers in a variety of settings. So apparently, absolute mastery of L2 is not a criterion we would want to apply to the extent of making people’s jobs dependent on it.

That aside, most sane people recognize that becoming part of a speech community tends to impart that speech. The question becomes: how do we replicate that in the classroom, if at all?

It’s a messy affair. What I’ve noticed is a strong bent toward purity on the part of lots and lots of fl teachers. But how pure should we be? As I was drinking my beers, I heard an announcer on the tv (why can’t we drink in peace, without music and sports blaring out at us?) say “…. it stems over……” “Stems over??” “Stems from…” is the original usage, although “stems to” is often heard. Is this the final nail in the coffin of Western Civilization?

Perhaps not. And here is where my reading in the history of English comes in and makes me infuriating to a lot of teachers. I should speak more broadly….. my reading in linguistics in general. For I know that languages are in an unending state of flux. People hear “stems from” but do not quite know what “stems” means, so they just pick up the general meaning which goes something like “is caused by”. With that nugget, they think of “stems” as something like “having to do with in a causal way” and so apply whatever preposition they think demonstrates a causal relationship. So we get “stems to” and “stems over” in the sense of “is caused by this other thing”. So the victory of San Diego may stem from superior defense or stem to it or even stem over it b/c it’s that defense that resulted in or caused the win.

All languages do this. Unfortunately, these mutations in any language give purists the opportunity to say, “See! The language is falling into decay b/c we’re not teaching grammar!” And the mutations also allow the purists to claim a learner of that language as L2 has failed to reach proficiency b/c he said “ainít” or “stems to”. I read this constantly on the Listservs – “Yes, these immigrants DO learn a SORT of English, but mere exposure resulting in a kind of gutter English is not what we are aiming for.” No, apparently what we are aiming for is students who can conjugate and little else.

I noted on the page of FL Annals devoted to Krashen’s response the word “were” where “we’re” was obviously meant. Justice Scalie opines forefully (npr interview) that contractions do not convey gravitas and are thus unsuited to (“for”?) serious discourse. That aside, some editor missed the distinction between “we’re” and “were” just as any of us sometimes miss the distinction between “it’s” and “its”, thus giving the purists the chance to declare that we are too stupid to understand the distinction between a contraction and the possessive adjective (or pronoun, if you prefer, though I don’t prefer). Either that or we are so careless we just don’t care, which is perhaps worse. Either way, we are categorized with the slovenly and the slobs.

It’s an easy game: look and look until you find some shibboleth of Bishop Lowth’s transgressed upon and AHA!, you have them. They cannot now hold up their head and, forever shamed, they shall remain silent, leaving the field to the purists and the prescriptivists. They wish.

Lots of teachers and language people have a tin ear. I love that expression. Pinker uses it when referring to people who simply cannot understand the meaning of “I could care less.” They have a tin ear. You have to explain everything to them b/c they don’t listen, they don’t hear nuance, they don’t grasp humor, irony eludes them and they just get mad over sarcasm. Sad for them. The richness of the sprawl of normal language is beyond their grasp. If it isn’t cast in the mold of “great Literature”, they sniff at it and declain their allegiance to all that is Good and Pure.

I am not aware of any cure for a tin ear. However, a good many of my colleagues simply accept the shibboleths and stereotypes of the teacher culture; yet they do remain open to new ways of seeing if they can ever find the time to read and discuss such matters. However, when a teacher becomes rigid and calcified, we lose a great resource. Students will learn in a rote-like manner from him and even appreciate what the Great Man has to offer, but the excitement of learning will be absent.

And this is the reason I want to blog. The surprisingly many visitors to my blog may see something that will wrench them out of their acceptance of the routine and besotted practices of the profession. If they are not yet ready to question the blessed litany of conjugation, they might be open to revelations about the teaching profession in general.

Before and after my stroganoff, I watched a program I had TiVoed (TiVo’d?) some time ago on American education. There was an interview with a Finnish exchange student and then interviews with faculty in her home school in Finland. Made very clear was that teachers were allocated time for reflection, study, and discussion.

A teacher from China was interviewed also and was amazed at what he saw in a rural American school and shocked that his top student in Chinese language went off to the Marines b/c he could not afford college. He did not have a tin ear – he heard perfectly well how much America values education and foreign language study.

Both the Chinese teacher and the Finnish teachers offered startling contrast to our American system. Not that teachers in those countries get paid so much more; it’s the working conditions: opportunities to coordinate with colleagues, to engage in continuing education and in-service training. Prestige is also a factor. The physical plant enters into it.

We consider it normal and acceptable that teachers will work a second job and thus be too tired or lack the time to make up the sort of lesson plans we constantly see requests for on these Listservs. Foreigners think this is like undergoing an operation by a surgeon who has just left his second job and second shift as an auto mechanic. Absolutely bizarre. And we question why our kids struggle with abstract knowledge?

The Finns say they emphasize thinking. What would be the reaction in many communities of the U.S. if their children began thinking about some of the b.s. that is received wisdom in these communities, received wisdom that sends a young man reaching for Chinese into a combat unit? Such heretical thinking would be rejected, as is evolution, sex education, free and open discussion of politics……. all too controversial b/c three parents in the district will tie up every schoolboard meeting with their insistence that everyone think as they do and no one be exposed to contrary viewpoints.

The retort to this is that these cases are high visibility but rare. They’re rare b/c teachers censor themselves. I can recall numerous instances where teachers in my school expressed concern, even sleepless nights, over what might happen over something they said. I even had a parent thrust a video into my stomach (technically assault) b/c I dared say the U.S. Constitution derived from the Enlightenment and its derivation directly from God was not normally included in the curriculum.

A significant part of the program on U.S. education explored a poor district – OK, let’s be frank here…. all the kids were Black. The school was receiving some good services that allowed teachers to work together and to develop ways of bringing kids’ test scores up (isn’t that how we determine if someone is learning?). The program, put on by the leftist, hate-America-first PBS, pointed out that similar schools in the area did not have this program and even in this school the program was due to depart in 3 years. Hopefully, the poverty, crime, and dearth of services in the neighborhood will depart at the same time and it will be equivalent to a suburban neighborhood.

I don’t think it’s all that hard to figure out: when a board of supervisors extends massive tax breaks for a company settling into the area, thereby depriving the schools of a revenue stream, find out where the board members’ children attend school. Real simple, real basic.

We will continue to pump for our favorite fl teaching method and wonder why every fl teacher doesn’t jump on board with us. Meanwhile, kids will troop into our classrooms, excited, with any luck, over learning this new language. What are you going to do to maintain their excitement and meet their expectations?

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